Portland, Maine’s recently implemented Green New Deal (GND) concerns some state contractors who are worried about being disqualified from public work in the city if they can’t comply with the voter-approved ordinance’s stringent apprenticeship requirements that are effective on Jan. 1.

“If you don’t have an [apprenticeship] program or have one but don’t meet the 10% threshold, you have to make a decision whether to modify your company to bid for work in Portland or find work somewhere else,” says Matt Marks, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Maine.

Already in effect for public or city-funded projects awarded on or after Dec. 6, the citizen initiative referendum was approved by 57% of Portland's voters on Nov. 3. It aims to slow climate change, improve working conditions and create more affordable housing.

The measure also raises green building standards and requires solar-ready or living-roof standards for projects receiving $50,000 or more in public funding, expands pathways for energy efficiency certification to include passive houses and living buildings. It also requires Portland officials to monitor the use of fossil fuel infrastructure in the city and create plans to meet emissions targets, according to People First Portland, an activist organization behind the initiative.

Parts of the ordinance may apply to private residential projects with 10 or more units, or projects that will be used by the city after they are completed, according to the city. Generally, the ordinance applies to eligible city projects or projects funded by the city. 

“There’s not another city working on a Green New Deal like ours,” says Ethan Strimling, Portland’s former mayor, who worked with People First to pass the initiative. “While many cities are passing strong environmental regulations, strong worker protection and strong affordable housing requirements, only this measure puts all three together in one ordinance.” 

Packing all three into the ordinances, however, is exactly why opponents such as Ethan Boxer-Macomber, principal of Anew Development, call the Green New Deal a "Trojan Horse." His Portland-based real estate company is behind several affordable and LEED-certified developments in the Portland area, and was one of 10 developers that signed a letter in opposition to the measure. “It’s not green, it’s not new and it’s a bad deal for Portland,” Boxer-Macomber says.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder, along with seven city councilors, opposed all five referendum questions on the Nov. 3 ballot. In a statement they wrote that they “are not necessarily opposed to the policy goals of the ballot questions, but rather the process and context in which they were developed, anticipated unintended consequences.” 

The approved ballot measures can’t be changed by the city council for five years.

Jack Parker, chairman and CEO of Reed and Reed Inc. in Woolwich, Maine, says the measure will “create layers of bureaucratic processes, reduce competition for publicly-funded projects and dramatically increase construction labor costs. “It will discourage investment in Maine and strangle the Maine construction industry.”  

City data on the number of public and private projects that will be required to adhere to the measure was not immediately available.

Up for Interpretation  

John Napolitano, president of Maine State Building Construction Trades Council, says his organization successfully advocated for provisions in the Green New Deal related to workforce training, safer job sites and fair wages. “We’re pleased that nearly 60% of Portland voters agreed it was time to implement these critical policies,” he says.  

But while members of the construction industry reviewed the measure in August, Marks says there was no formal feedback process before it appeared on the ballot, leaving many unanswered questions about how it will be interpreted. 

While the city published implementation guidelines on Dec. 4, many stakeholders, including contractors, maintain that requirements remain confusing and unclear. For example, Marks says he’s unclear what the definition of qualified professionals for design, building and construction that require recognized training on LEED, Well AP, passive house, green globes or similar designs.

“To us it appears that everyone from the architect to a person digging a hole will need a green certification,” Marks says. 

Marks says the city needs time to “digest” the ordinance. “I imagine they have a lot of internal questions about how they release projects in compliance with the guidelines, so we will wait until we have projects in question before issuing another letter asking for clarification.” Marks adds the city is “pretty savvy” and he is confident they will address any issues that need clarification as they arise and “figure them out.”

The Green New Deal Frequently Asked Questions, also published Dec. 4, notes that individuals with questions about the applicability of the ordinance should contact staff in the city’s appropriate department or consult their attorney for guidance. 

Green Labor 

Among its three major components, the measure introduces requirements for building projects receiving $50,000 or more in public funds to comply with wage and benefit requirements. It also calls for workers to complete safety training. 

Apprenticeship requirements ratchet up over three years. Beginning Jan. 1, a builder bidding on city projects must have 10% of the firm's workers on a project registered in an apprentice program. That increases to 17.5% by 2023 and to 25% by 2025.

Of the 30,000 construction workers currently working in Maine, less than 1% are in an apprenticeship program registered with the state, Marks says, noting “it takes time for contractors to get their program registered and get people into the program.”

Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition—which opposed the measure—says the apprenticeship requirement could stymie affordable housing projects in Portland. He contacted every contractor that built a Portland affordable housing project in the past decade to determine if they thought they would qualify to bid on a future project under a 25% apprenticeship requirement, “and every one of these modest-sized companies said no.” 

While he says his organization supports building green, Payne is concerned “this referendum will leave us without a construction partner and that we will not be able to build affordable housing in Portland.” 

But Napolitano of the Maine State Building Construction Trades Council, argues that the Green New Deal’s apprenticeship program benefits contractors by providing skilled workers that don’t all have to be paid the same rate. “I’ve talked to a lot of contractors who are struggling to find a skilled workforce,” he says, “especially in Maine where they have an aging workforce.”